SACD & Other Hi-Res Reviews

PROKOFIEV: Symphony No. 5; The Year 1941 – São Paulo Sym. Orch./ Marin Alsop – Naxos (audio-only Blu-ray)

A fine hi-res surround version of Prokofiev's best-known symphony.

Published on October 13, 2012

PROKOFIEV: Symphony No. 5; The Year 1941 – São Paulo Symphony Orchestra/ Marin Alsop – Naxos audio-only Blu-ray NBD0031 (DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 & PCM stereo) *****:

This is the latest of two audio-only Blu-ray releases from Naxos (the other is the Berlioz Symphonie fantastique), who gave up on SACDs seven years ago and now are hoping to make Blu-ray the popular hi-res surround format since the penetration of Blu-ray decks is higher than SACD-capable players. This particular recording was first issued as one of their standard CD releases, with a picture of the composer on the front.

Marin Alsop is now one of the world’s leading conductors. She is conductor emeritus of the Bournemouth Symphony, music director of California’s Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music, music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, and as of this year the principal conductor of the São Paulo Symphony Orchestra in Brazil. She is a frequent guest conductor at orchestras around the world. The São Paulo Symphony is one of the leading South American orchestras, and has made more than 50 CDs.

The Fifth is probably the composer’s finest and best-known of his seven symphonies, and its overall effect is spectacular. He called it “a symphony of the grandeur of the human spirit.” Having played bass drum in it in college, I’m personally quite familiar with the work and it is my favorite symphony. Its opening movement—which begins with a grandiose statement—is the longest of the four, full of interesting lyrical melodies and Prokofiev’s usual touches of sarcasm. The scherzo movement is fierce and forward, and the finale especially passionate, with a triumphant finish. Unusual pairs of woodwind instruments are a part of the work’s construction.

There are a number of competitors to this new recording, but both Naxos’ exciting performance and first-rate surround sonics place it at the head of my current list. Jean Martinon’s versions of both the Fifth and Seventh, with the Paris Conservatoire Orchestra on RCA Victor Living Stereo LP and CD have been standards, but the sonics of No. 5 now sound rather dated and small on my vinyl copy. Some of Leonard Bernstein’s recordings in The Royal Edition Sony Classical remasterings  sound quite good in spite of Columbia’s steely treble of the period, but I was surprised at the somewhat laid-back quality he achieved in the Fifth, especially in the exciting final movement. Not the white-hot energy he got in his Columbia recording of the Shostakovich Fifth.  There are also SACD versions on Audite, PentaTone and Telarc, which I no longer have in my collection, so either never received or didn’t like.

The Year 1941 is in three movements. Here are their titles: In the Struggle; In the Night; For the Brotherhood of Man. That pretty much tell you what to expect in this Soviet-era work.  Next to the Fifth they are forgettable.

—John Sunier

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